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    Tuesday, August 19, 2008


    In this age of mass hype (I know, I'm partly to blame), it's hard to find anything that's not oversold.

    Unless we're talking semi-colons.

    (Argh, I hear you say. You HATE semi-colons? Then why do you try to use them, and with such incredibly sorry results? Read further, and you might not need to pay for my services as often...)

    Anyway, I'd like to restore this neglected punctuation mark's reputation. So allow me to hype where hype is due.

    I found a great piece on these grand old marks, their detractors, and their advocates in the Boston Globe today. Regardless of your position on them, they're dying out. Indeed, as Jan Freeman points out in the article, "the semicolon has been suffering. Paul Collins, in a recent Slate article, cited a study showing 'a stunning drop in semicolon usage between the 18th and 19th centuries, from 68.1 semicolons per thousand words to just 17.7.'"

    Seems all the hate is because people simply don't know what the things do. Which is too bad, because semi-colons are useful, elegant, and, believe it or not, easy to use correctly. Besides, used well, they really impress.

    So in the interest of restoring the semi-colon's lost position in the English language, here's a quick refresher. It's quite simple, really.
    1. Use a semi-colon if you want to link two independent clauses. Yikes! What's an independent clause?!?! Sheesh, it's easy! An independent clause is basically a sentence in which a person, place, thing, or idea is either doing or being something. If you have two of those kinds of sentences back to back and they are closely related, then they can be joined by a semi-colon.

      Example: "The marketing director sank his teeth into the the donut; it was delicious."

      First independent clause: The marketing director--the person--is doing something--sinking his teeth into a donut.

      Second independence clause: the donut ("it") is the thing, and it is delicious.

      And the thoughts are obviously related. Throw a semi-colon between 'em! Yes, they could be linked with a period if you want, but the semi-colon keeps the thought moving better. Now that's not hard, is it!
    2. Use a semi-colon if you want to clarify the elements in a complex series. We could describe the American flag as being "red, white, and blue." The colors in that sentence are a simple series, and so they're separated only with commas. Sometimes, however, you have to list a more complex series--perhaps a series that is itself composed of other series. In other words, in a series where commas alone would make for total confusion.

      Example: "The corporation is headed by Anne Smith, CEO; Jack White, co-founder, CFO and board member; Julia Elder, co-founder and CTO."

      Just imagine if that series were separated only by commas:

      "The corporation is headed by Anne Smith, CEO, Jack White, co-founder, CFO and board member, Julia Elder, co-founder and CTO." Who's who? Total chaos.
    See. It's just like that. Semi-colons are easy; now go use 'em.

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